Essay: Food and the Women's Land Army Uniform

by Amy de la Haye on 16 April 2020

Amy de la Haye explores the uniform of the British Women’s Land Army, who stepped in to solve food shortages during the First World War.

Amy de la Haye explores the uniform of the British Women’s Land Army, who stepped in to solve food shortages during the First World War.

‘Breeched, booted and cropped, she broke with startling effect upon the sleepy traditions of the English countryside.’ David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister 1916-22 (Lloyd George: 1938).

In 2020–as in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War–the UK imports at least 50% of its foodstuffs (some figures suggest it is as high as 80%). On 29 March 2020, over a century later, The Sunday Times reported that city investor, art collector and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer had safeguarded jobs at Auckland Castle in County Durham by re-directing workers to produce food for the local community recalling wartime calls to ‘dig for victory’. Ruffer stated that he was recruiting a ‘land army’ to grow leeks, broccoli, kale, turnips and apples that will be harvested in about three months’ time.

In this modern pandemic moment, where our service-based economy has pivoted to manufacturing and delivering food, medicine and medical supplies, the land army of Britain during the First World War (1914-1918) becomes an interesting historical parallel. Here, de la Haye explores the vital roles undertaken by members of Britain’s Women’s Land Army (WLA), and how their distinctive breeched uniform had ramifications far beyond ploughed furrows and into performing the feminine in wider society.

In 1914, there was a widespread belief that the hostilities would be short-lived and the exodus of men and horses from the countryside would soon be reversed. Agriculture gradually slipped into decline, and by winter 1917, shortages had reached crisis point for this island nation. However, it was not until December that year that the WLA was formed.

The organisation enticed recruits by extolling the restorative and redemptive qualities of the land upon women, and women's seemingly natural capacity to nurture, rather than destroy. Women aged 17 years and older were drawn from the towns and cities and were despatched to reside with elderly farming people or live in rural hostels. Many of them had never previously visited the countryside, and only sometimes were they given training (which lasted six weeks). The land girls–as they became known and described themselves –could opt to work in agriculture, timber cutting or forage (animal feed). Working hours were long and unregulated, the jobs performed were often gruelling, and for those living in remote regions, social isolation was acute.

Land girls at work and play

The word uniform is derived from the Latin una (one) form: its function is to reinforce the collective, rather than the individual. However, land girls often worked alone or in pairs. Each recruit was ideally allocated a head-to-toe uniform comprising two overalls (which replaced occupational smocks and were important for re-framing farming as a modern industry) one hat, one pair of breeches, one pair of boots, one pair of canvas leggings, one jersey, one pair of clogs and one mackintosh. This uniform was not always available, as the needs of the armed forces were invariably privileged.

Whilst some women felt empowered by their uniform, others felt it drew unwanted attention to them. The mostly khaki colour palette of their uniform may have camouflaged with the rural environment, but the sight of women wearing the tulip-cut ‘elephant ear breeches’ at a time when trousers were very rarely worn by women, rendered them entirely conspicuous.

Postcard photograph of one cohort of Land Girls wearing white overalls and breeches for dairy work.

In contrast to local women workers who might have worn an apron or overall with a long dress, or blouse and skirt, the land girls were criticised for looking overtly masculine, as shown below in a Punch cartoon from 1917. The land girls were also satirised as demonstrating naïvety to rural life (lack of knowledge of animal reproduction became a comical stereotype). Furthermore, many people assumed the land girls had loose sexual morals and posed a threat to men’s future employment: both of these fears fed into cultural anxieties about the new ‘mannish' type of woman that was developing. However, from the outset, most land girls more than proved their mettle, becoming adept at felling trees, rat-catching, milking and working horse and plough.

Altogether, some 23,000 land girls became essential workers; so essential in fact that they were not demobilised until November 1919, one year after peace was declared. Yet, generally hidden from broader public view, they received scant recognition, and those who did champion them portrayed them poetically as ‘Cinderellas of the Soil’. The land girls were amongst some five million women who were drawn into the wartime workforce, and whilst many returned to domestic roles, their lives, outlook and style of dress were changed forever. Just a year later, the 1920s arrived, in which fashion evolved to what became known as the garçonne or flapper look, remembered for its daring and connotations of freedom. The silhouette was knee length (hemlines had never been so short), straight-cut (not emphasising the feminine body) and stylistically sportif. Trousers did not, however, become widespread wear: apart from occupational dress, trousers were confined to the beach and domestic spaces, the latter as evening pyjamas for the most fashionable.

Punch cartoon from 31 January 1917

In 2020's global health crisis, it’s worth considering how employment and food production is being re-directed just like it was a century ago. Could what our nation of kitchen gardeners are wearing now, as they tend their sourdough starters and indoor herb gardens, have the same ramifications on fashion as the land girls once did? Only time will tell.

Postcard photograph of a land girl who went to a photographic studio to be photographed in her new working attire.

Lloyd George, David War Memoirs of David Lloyd George Odhams Press, volume 2 1938: 770



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